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Draining The Wrong Swamp?

Apr 01, 2018 07:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo
By Frederick Schultz

Even though the Chesapeake Bay’s environmental health has gradually improved over the past 30 years, the president’s Fiscal Year 2018 federal budget eliminates the Environmental Protection Agency’s $73 million Chesapeake Bay Program. The president’s FY19 budget version, passed to Congress in February, retains some semblance of the program but proposes to cut funding by 90 percent, to $7.3 million. What’s happening here? 


"We all live downstream" was a catchy phrase in the 1980s referring to the Chesapeake Bay watershed states that have an impact on—and thus some assumed stake in—the health of the bay. The partnerships and visions forged back then are still alive, but shoal waters could lie dead ahead.

The Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), under the umbrella of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), began in 1983 when the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, along with the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the EPA administrator, signed an agreement that established the CBP Executive Council. In 1987, the Chesapeake Bay Agreement set a goal to reduce “nutrients” (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus) in the bay by 40 percent by 2000, an effort that expanded in 1992 “to attack nutrients at their source: upstream in the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries.”

In June 2000, a further agreement extended bay-restoration efforts through 2010 and marked the
inclusion of Delaware, New York, and West Virginia as watershed states. Today, the CBP partners with 20 federal agencies, 27 academic institutions, 34 nongovernmental organizations, and six other entities.    
 
While most of us who live and work in the bay area reap the benefits of its bounty today, what if there were dramatically fewer native crabs, oysters, and fish for the picking? Are we ready for merely “Maryland-style” everything (just check the ingredients of products already mandated to use that label) because there’s precious little of the real thing? In what might be a harbinger of things to come, the Baltimore Sun reported in January that felony charges have been filed against a retailer in Virginia caught buying less expensive and lower quality crabmeat from outside the country and labeling nearly 400,000 pounds of it “Product of the USA.” 

The latest analysis released in spring 2017 found that the bay is indeed getting progressively cleaner. The grade given by the Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Institute
of Marine and Environmental Technology was a “C”—54 percent. This is the best score yet, for the second year in a row since the report-card results started being tallied in 1986. Now, bay watchers fear that a gradual upward trend in water quality could easily and quickly diminish—especially if some in Washington who are closely monitoring the better numbers are content that they’re good enough, sufficient to curtail spending any federal tax dollars on the CBP.

"We all live downstream"
Following is what public servants are saying—from federal, state, and county officials to Annapolis City Hall. We also hear from those bay watchers, nervous about what the future holds, and from one well-versed and widely-respected waterman who reports on the realities of working on the still-polluted bay and whom he believes should be responsible for its cleanup, which
may surprise you. 

Is the EPA “Protecting” the Bay?
President Richard Nixon established the EPA in 1970. In his State of the Union address that January, he stated: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.” Today, E. Scott Pruitt serves as the 14th EPA administrator in an apparently more partisan atmosphere. In his EPA website bio, the former attorney general of Oklahoma proudly proclaims that he “established Oklahoma’s first federalism unit to combat unwarranted regulation and overreach by the federal government.” Pruitt recently told CBS News that one of his aims is to establish partnerships with industry (some known polluters) “in order for the agency to help
protect the environment.”

In response to questioning from Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes before an Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee meeting in early December 2017, Pruitt replied: “I think, Congressman, the comments I made during the appropriations process should also be referenced, which I spoke to members of this this body as well as the Senate on the very issue and expressed my commitment.” That “commitment” is ostensibly to the CBP, the same line-item missing from the president’s FY18 budget.

Apparently to illustrate that expressed commitment, “an EPA spokesperson,” in an email response to our request for comment from Administrator Pruitt, pointed out that on December 11, 2017 the “EPA awarded $150,000 to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to upgrade Information Technology for Chesapeake Bay Restoration.”The spokesperson added that, “In each of his appearances and confirmation hearing, Administrator Pruitt has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the CBP, especially its model of working with states and local communities.” 

The spokesperson also pointed out that, “One example is the Administrator’s appearance in front of House appropriations [when he said]: ‘The TMDL [Total Maximum Daily Load—a benchmark for what environmental scientists deem to be target levels of discharged nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment] is an example of states coming together to address nonpoint sources, and the Agency provided leadership and management facilitation in that area.’”

 "The TMDL is an example of states coming together to address nonpoint sources, and the Agency provided leadership and management facilitation in that area.”

—Scott Pruitt

 Jesse Iliff, the South River Federation’s South Riverkeeper since October 2015, has a problem with the EPA leadership. “The EPA’s enforcement of pollution laws is kind of like the way drunk drivers were handled 30 years ago,” he contends. “Back then, both law enforcement and the judiciary treated drunk driving with a comparative slap on the wrist. Now, it’s treated with appropriately harsh penalties. It’s past time that environmental crimes receive the same treatment, if we actually value human health and the bay.”

Well-Positioned to Lead
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan appointed Benjamin Grumbles as Secretary of Environment in March 2015. Responding to our request for comment, Secretary Grumbles said he sees Maryland as “well-positioned to lead among our state and federal partners in saving the bay and protecting local watersheds.” To support this, he points out that “Governor Hogan has committed more than $3 billion over the last three years...with robust funding for clean water infrastructure, Program Open Space, regulatory safeguards, and education and outreach.” 

Maryland is also playing a leadership role among bay watershed shareholders. Since June 2017, the governor has been chairing the CBP’s Executive Council. And, adds Grumbles, “I chair the 7 State Principals Staff Committee as well as the Governor’s Chesapeake Bay Cabinet.”

What about the proposed federal cuts passed down from the White House? “The Hogan Administration is committed to fighting proposed federal cuts,” Grumbles emphasizes, “keeping federal regulatory backstops and strong scientific support, and growing partnerships for the bay.” Specifically addressing the president’s budget, he points out that “we have pushed back hard on the president’s proposal to zero out the CBP Office.”  

Robust funding, science, and stewardship are paying off and cleaning up the bay, but we still have a long way to go.” —Benjamin Grumbles

Secretary Grumbles closed his remarks on a cautionary note: “Robust funding, science, and stewardship are paying off and cleaning up the bay, but we still have a long way to go.” To go that “long way,” he adds, “Cooperative Federalism, where the EPA and other federal agencies provide assistance to the states, and innovative public private partnerships, such as nutrient credit trading and pay-for-performance projects, are needed to help us meet
our ambitious cleanup goals.” 

The County View 
Erik Michelsen, administrator of the Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, strongly acknowledges the importance of the CBP. “Fortunately for those of
us in Anne Arundel County,” he says, “the Bay Program offices are in
Eastport, in Annapolis, allowing us easy and frequent access to Bay Program staff.” Michelsen adds that CBP staff members “have been instrumental in developing and launching the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which created the interstate framework that has been the driver for a massive amount of the clean water work done throughout the region since it was implemented in 2010.”

The CBP has especially been beneficial to local governments, Michelsen says, playing “an important coordinating role in providing technical assistance and keeping them up to date on the latest developments throughout the region.” He also sees the program as a vehicle to provide the county “a forum to share ‘lessons learned’ with other jurisdictions, and to help inform future protection and restoration efforts throughout the watershed.” In addition, Michelsen points out that grants from the CBP’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund “have directed tens of millions of
dollars to local governments and nonprofit organizations doing the on-the-ground work necessary to accomplish local water-quality improvements.” To local stewards, that “on-the-ground work” appears to be fundamental to the entire effort.
 
The Mayor Acts Locally from Annapolis
Gavin Buckley, an Annapolis entrepreneur and native of Australia, handily defeated the incumbent mayor in the November 2017 election, a victory some consider a local referendum on the current national leadership. The environment was front-and-center in Buckley’s campaign, especially when he participated in a well-publicized debate on the topic with his opponent just before the election.

"We have some making up to do in America. We have been the biggest polluters and producers of greenhouse gasses in the world. Now it’s up to us to lead the way and reverse it.”                       —Gavin Buckley

With what seems to many as lukewarm support for environmental issues from Washington, we asked the new mayor in an interview at City Hall what initiatives he will introduce to address bay pollution. “I think it’s all going to fall on our shoulders, now that we have a polarized national political scene,” he replied. 

Buckley announced a proposal that would immediately target the source of one specific pollutant. “The first piece of legislation I’m going to attach myself to is establishing a no-discharge zone for Spa Creek, Weems Creek, and our other waterways. It sends a good message about who we are...The point is, we need to fight for our waterways. The lack of enthusiasm from the federal government is almost like they don’t have children,” Buckley deadpanned. “The fact that sewage is treated [for pathogens] before going in the water doesn’t make me feel any better about it. It’s still sewage. The nitrogen problem is serious.”

What about storm-water runoff? “We need to start thinking about how our bay is going to survive when we see sheets of water rolling into storm drains from roads, untreated. I think as a state capital we should be leading the way in how to deal with it.” 

How would he convince constituents that paying for runoff mitigation is a good thing? “I think we need to usher in a new era of consciousness. If you call it a rain tax—or whatever labels dissuade people from feeling a sense of responsibility to the environment—we need to turn that around. I think it’s just a marketing exercise.” The mayor said he would gladly pay a tax, “if it’s going to fix the bay. I want it to be there for my kids and grandkids.”

What other plans might he implement to get citizens involved? “On the campaign trail we talked
about something called ‘stormtroopers.’ If you could be accountable to the closest storm drain in your neighborhood, ones that have been catch-fitted, as was done with a New South Wales [Australia] initiative, you can clear out large trash items while you’re walking the dog. If you were a stormtrooper, you’d be responsible for that drain, and we’d name it after you for a year. That would solve a lot of the problems in terms of big stuff—plastic bags and bottles.”

What is the ultimate message he’s trying to send? “We have some making up to do in America. We have been the biggest polluters and producers of greenhouse gasses in the world. Now it’s up to us to lead the way and reverse it. Locally, there are potentially 175 people out of work soon with the EPA in Eastport [Annapolis]. That’s a lot of local talent who care about the bay. Maybe we can get some of those people to help us.”

Peter Marx, Federal Affairs Contractor for the Choose Clean Water Coalition, raised this issue in a phone interview. According to him, the lease is up in 2019 in the “Carroll’s Creek” complex that currently houses the CBP office in Annapolis. Marx says the EPA intends to move the office when that time comes to the Army post at Fort Meade because it is “a secure facility.” Access there, he fears, will be restricted. 

A View from Below the Surface
When John VanAlstine isn’t farming, he’s on board his boat, the Patricia Anne. We caught him by telephone at his home base, VanAlstine’s Seafood and Farm in Dunkirk, one afternoon to set up an interview. He agreed to do it on the spot, since he rarely knows when he’ll be accessible. “I’m usually only available when it’s dark,” he said.

We wanted to know from a waterman what he thought of the possibility that the entire Chesapeake Bay Program could be eliminated. He did not mince words. “I don’t believe somebody in Wyoming, or Kansas, or Texas should be paying for the Chesapeake Bay. I believe the watershed should be paying for it. I agree with [President] Trump’s cancelling the other states’ having to pay for it. We use it, and we destroyed it. So, we should pay for it.” 

VanAlstine clearly knows where much of the problem lies. “We should not be dumping sewage of any kind into the bay,” he urges. “We especially shouldn’t be allowing boat owners to dump their sewage overboard. It’s still nitrogen going into the bay, and that’s what’s killing it. Our sewage treatment plants aren’t treating the nitrogen, just the pathogens that are making people sick.” 

How is the pollution affecting him directly? “My crab pots and fish nets won’t stay clean in the summer months more than seven to ten days. And am I seeing that get any better? No. Everybody wants to push it on to the other guy. The citizens right here in this watershed are the ones who are causing the nitrogen problem.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation Weighs In
Beth McGee, the director of Science and Agricultural Policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement for this story that will surprise no one. She states that “we urge full funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program, the glue that holds together bay restoration efforts.”

Most of the money, McGee says, “goes directly to local governments, nonprofit organizations, and others who are working to clean up local water.” McGee notes that “We are seeing real progress.” That includes, she asserts, “a triple win: clean water, local economic benefits, and improved bottom lines for farmers.” According to McGee, “air pollution contributes a third of
the nitrogen pollution fouling the bay.” Thus, “the EPA must enforce the Clean Air Act and prevent corporations from profiting at the expense of public health.”

In 1986, novelist, essayist, and Maryland native son John Barth wrote an introduction to a re-release of Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, for which author William W. Warner won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Barth closed his praise for the “unpatronizing ease” with which the author brought both watermen and their “scrappy” prey to life, with an admonition: “This book is their delightsome present testament. If worse comes to ecological worst, it will be their monument, and a worthy one.”

So, what’s next? Thanks in large part to the efforts of Maryland Congressman A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, an appropriations bill restoring $60 million of the EPA’s 2017 $73 million budget for the CBP passed the U.S. House of Representatives (the fourth year in a row the House has proposed a 20 percent cut). As of this writing, the U.S. Senate version of the FY18 bill, which may or may not follow the House lead, has yet to pass. In the meantime, one of the program’s most outspoken champions, the Choose Clean Water Coalition’s Peter Marx, is “very optimistic,” as the government shuts down, deadlines are reset, and “the
can is kicked down the road.”  

Frederick Schultz is a decades-long veteran journalist and editor, whose work has appeared in numerous local, national, and international publications. This is his first contribution to What’s Up? Media.